01_venus_adonisJohn Blow - Venus and Adonis

Amanda Forsythe; Tyler Duncan; Mireille Lebel; Boston Early Music Festival; Paul O'Dette; Stephen Stubbs

CPO 777 614-2

The Boston Early Music Festival and the German Cpo label have successfully collaborated on five recording projects of early opera so far, including Conradi’s Ariadne, Charpentier’s Acteon, two by Lully - Thésée and Psyché - and this, John Blow’s little-performed masterpiece from the early 1680s, Venus and Adonis. It’s a powerful and economical piece, full of drama, humour, action and, ultimately, deep poignancy.

The performance, co-directed by the legendary lutenists Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, is as close to perfect as one could hope for. Tempos are well-chosen and the small baroque band and chorus are lively and colourful and really dive into the score with emotional intensity. BEMF has a strong Canadian connection and the two Canadian soloists – mezzo Mireille Lebel (Cupid) and baritone Tyler Duncan (Adonis) – both acquit themselves with a combination of beautiful sound and superb attention to text. The third soloist, American soprano Amanda Forsythe, is less appealing, not for lack of drama, but because her sound tends toward the relentlessly steely, not well-suited to the character of Venus. She more than redeems herself, however, in a stunning performance of Blow’s Welcome, ev’ry guest, one of three additional pieces at the end of the recording.

The accompanying booklet is packed full of interesting essays, biographies of everyone involved (even bassoonist Dominic Teresi, of Tafelmusik), full texts and translations. The photos of the original BEMF production of Venus and Adonis give some idea of what a special project this was. How lucky for us that it was recorded so exquisitely for posterity.

Concert Notes: Mireille Lebel can be heard with Tafelmusik in Koerner Hall performances of Handel’s Hercules January 19 to 22. Tyler Duncan performs in Mozart’s Requiem with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra January 18 to 22 and will give the premiere of Jeffrey Ryan’s The Whitening of the Ox with New Music Concerts at the Enwave Theatre on January 29.

02_gauvin_lemieuxHandel - Streams of Pleasure

Karina Gauvin; Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis

Naïve V 5261

With the exception of Hercules, Alexander Balus and Theodora, the Handel oratorios on this disc clearly mark him as an Old Testament composer (in contrast with his contemporary, New Testament composer J.S. Bach). Handel composed oratorios almost exclusively in his later years and his choice of Old Testament historias such as Belshazzar, Susanna, Judas Maccabeus, Joseph and his Brethren, Joshua and Solomon offer every bit of dramatic variety as the operas he composed in his earlier career, albeit without the staging.

Just as in his operas, the oratorios offer many an opportunity to showcase both sopranos and contraltos through the use of stirring arias and duets. “Streams of Pleasure” indeed, with arias such as Crystal streams in murmurs flowing (Susanna) sung gorgeously by Karina Gauvin in all its sensuous beauty, contrasting brilliantly with the fiery Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Fury with red sparkling eyes from Alexander Balus. Both sing with the warmest tenderness in the recording’s title love duet from Theodora and add a most regal tone in the more contrapuntal Welcome as the dawn (Solomon).

In the solo arias, both singers exploit the da capo form to the fullest with supremely virtuosic trills and ornamentations on the second round. Complesso Barocco’s superb ability to shine whilst still allowing the fullest expression of the singer is demonstrated best in the sighing pathos of violin and descending continuo parts that highlight the grief and resignation in My father (Hercules). An exquisite addition to one’s collection of Handel’s vocal music.

Concert Note: Karina Gauvin is featured in Toronto Symphony Orchestra performances of Britten’s Les Illuminations February 22 to 23 at Roy Thomson Hall.


Daniel Taylor; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Jeanne Lamon

Analekta AN 2 9878

Daniel Taylor joins Tafelmusik for two selections on their 78th recording, performing two of Bach’s four cantatas for solo alto voice. Both on texts by Darmstadt court poet, Georg Christian Lehms, BWV54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, is from Bach’s Weimar period while the other, BWV170, Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, was composed and performed in 1726 at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. While in the exhortation to “resist sin” in Cantata 54 Bach provides a dramatic struggle complete with harmonic discord and a chromatic fugue, Cantata 170 focuses on the peace of a promised “delightful rest” in heaven. Rather than voice strictly accompanied by continuo, there is much interest in the interplay between voice, strings and particularly organ. Taylor maintains a reverential character throughout, even in the dramatic moments, focusing instead on the calm and steadfast reassurance of faith with superb tonal control that never sacrifices its sublime beauty.

The Tafelmusik orchestra is in fine form along with director Jeanne Lamon, violin and John Abberger, oboe, who are featured respectively in the Suite in A minor for violin and strings, BWV1067 and the Concerto for oboe and violin in C minor, BWV1060. The middle adagio cantabile movement in the latter allows the two soloists to engage in an exquisite musical exchange. All perform with deftness, poise and grace worthy of Bach’s enduring artistry.

04_Gluck_EzioGluck - Ezio

Max Emanuel Cencic; Ann Hallenberg; Sonia Prina; Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis

Virgin Classics 50999 07092923

Gluck is often styled an operatic reformer, but he composed many successful examples in the earlier opera seria style in which virtuosic da capo arias alternated with simple recitatives. In the year 1750 he selected texts by Pietro Metastasio of Rome, partly because Metastasio specialized in classical themes and partly because his librettos were admired by composers and performers alike.

Ezio is set in Rome after the title character, a Roman general, has defeated Attila the Hun, promptly arousing the jealousy of Emperor Valentiniano III. An intense romantic intrigue is grafted by Metastasio onto the historical background.

From the start, Metastasio’s words vary between heart-felt and lengthy arias and quick-fire exchanges during the recitatives. This is apparent in Act One, Scene Two when Ezio, Massimo and Fulvia reveal the initial romantic intrigue within the plot in a very short space of time before Ezio devotes an aria to pleading with Fulvia to be loyal to him.

Metastasio has created characters who are contradictory and flawed: Valentiniano is virtuous but at the same time he is cowardly and credulous, while Ezio is courageous but lacks a sense of caution. This is the backdrop against which Gluck composed his opera while Gluck had not yet himself settled in Vienna.

For all these problems and challenges, the opera lover can settle down to a complex but rewarding work, aided by Bruce Alan Brown’s comprehensive and explanatory notes.

05_anna-nicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole
Eva-Marie Westbroek; Gerald Finley; Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano
Opus Arte OA 1054 D

Opera is probably the most democratic art form, contrary to its “elitist” reputation. Centuries ago, the librettists and composers figured out that lives of courtesans, prostitutes and comfort women are as worthy of being immortalized as the kings and nobles whose pleasure they serve. Enter “Anna Nicole.” The story of a rather Rubenesque woman famous… well, for being famous and for her enhanced chest, is pure tabloid fodder, sordid and vulgar. It is also tragic, not the least because of its final outcome.

Richard Thomas (who also created “Jerry Springer – the Opera”) seizes upon all the tabloid angles, but never loses sight of our tragic heroine. The choir, on-stage from the overture on, initially is just a Greek chorus. It quickly becomes a flock of media vultures, ready to report on the slightest non-event and to destroy Anna Nicole’s camera-seeking life in the process. You cannot help feeling as sorry for the fame obsessed small–town girl as you would for Cio Cio San. Large credit goes to Eva-Maria Westbroek’s sensational performance; Gerald Finley, who is clearly Covent Garden’s audience favourite, lends his beautiful baritone to the role of the sleazy lawyer Stern and Susan Bickley, is forced to be a modern-day Cassandra, predicting the gloom.

Turnage’s music, never very easy, gains on second hearing and is ably assisted by a rhythm section including John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin, I kid you not!). Should you see it? Yes! Besides, where else can you hear a soprano aria “Get me the f**k out of here!”?

03_rossini_wm_tellRossini - William Tell
Gerald Finley; John Osborn; Malin Bystrom; Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Orchestra e Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Antonio Pappano
EMI 0 28826 2

With glorious C major arpeggios and a scene bathed in sunlight over the mountains above Lake Lucerne in a newly liberated Switzerland… so ends Rossini’s last work for the opera stage. Guillaume Tell, a monumental, French style grand opera and a prototype for the genre later developed by Auber, Halevy and Meyerbeer, was indeed his swan song after which, at age 48 and after 59 operas, he wisely decided to take it easy, enjoy his wealth and fame in Paris, be a great cook, give musical soirées and teach at exorbitant fees. William Tell is unlike anything he had written before in its scope, scale and musical language. Even Wagner expressed unusual interest by saying that at one point Rossini created a “perfect fusion of declamatory style and emotional content.” “So I wrote music of the future?” asked Rossini innocently. “No, Maestro, but music for all times!” was Wagner’s thoughtful reply.

The opera is seldom recorded mainly because of the strenuous requirements on singers. For example the tenor has to sing 54 B flats, 19 high C’s and 2 C sharps! Therefore it is doubly welcome to have this superb new EMI release conducted by today’s maestro of maestros of opera, Antonio Pappano. With carefully studied pacing this long, unwieldy score becomes beautifully coherent with dramatic excitement, tumultuous crowd scenes, expansive pastoral interludes and exhilarating ballet music of the finest kind. This recording bolsters our national pride with two of the principals being Canadian, baritone Gerald Finley (Tell) and Marie-Nicole Lemieux (his wife Hedwige), both in fine characterization, superior voice and impeccable French accent. But probably the greatest strength of the recording is American tenor John Osborn heroically conquering this most gruelling role of the repertoire, Arnold Melchtal.

All other principals are exemplary and form a true team effort of this surprisingly satisfying rarely performed work.

04_luluBerg - Lulu
Julia Migenes; Evelyn Lear; Kenneth Riegel; Metropolitan Opera; James Levine
Sony 88697910099

Alban Berg finished the short score of Lulu in the spring of 1934. Like Wozzeck, it was structured with what George Perle called a “recapitulatory aspect” in that large sections of the second half repeat or alter movements from the first half. Berg orchestrated Acts 1, 2, and the first 268 bars of Act 3; the orchestral interlude of Act 3 and the closing scene were thrust into the Lulu Suite as a promo piece suggested and conducted by Kleiber in November 1934. Delayed by the commission of his violin concerto, his sudden illness and death left the remainder of Act 3 unorchestrated. Erwin Stein published Acts 1 and 2 and had engraved the first 70 pages of Act 3 when the short score was locked away by the widow Helene in her lawyers' safe. Frau Berg supposedly saw uncomfortable parallels between an autumnal feminine interest of her husband and the seductive anti-heroine Lulu. Act 3 was micro-filmed, there was a legal dispute and then Frau Berg died in 1976. Contrary to some stories, all but 86 bars could be orchestrated with a mathematical conviction. Happily, the task fell to Friedrich Cerha, a composer devoted to Webern, Schoenberg and Berg. The Berg scholar Anthony Pople generously admitted: “Whatever its minor shortcomings, Cerha's realization is brilliant work, and there is no reason to think that there will ever be a necessity for the completion of Act 3 in full score to be undertaken afresh.”

The three-act version appeared in Paris on February 24, 1979 starring Canada’s Teresa Stratas to rave reviews. Franz Mazura was Dr. Schön and Kenneth Riegel his son Alwa, both of whom then appeared at the Met in 1980 in the production recorded in this beautiful DVD set. Lulu is Julia Migenes, a seductive and street-wise survivor, with a sharp dramatic edge. Evelyn Lear (a wonderful Lulu herself) plays the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, completely at home in this music and convincing as the only truly honourable character in the opera. Both the acting and the singing are compelling. James Levine loves Berg and draws a nuanced performance of this complex and fascinating work. If you have not previously been won over by Lulu, she may well seduce you with this appearance.

broken_hearts___madmenBroken Hearts and Madmen

Patricia O'Callaghan; Gryphon Trio

Analekta AN 2 9870

Classical sensibilities applied to popular music should enhance, rather than sacrifice the spirit and intent of the original music. It rarely makes sense to over-beautify the themes of everyday life and we all can site instances where the marriage of pop and classical does not quite work. In this recording, however, Patricia O’Callaghan and the Gryphon Trio, deliver savvy and artful new interpretations. It all begins with choosing ingeniously artful songs. Songs by the likes of Laurie Anderson, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello are interspersed with those by Llasa de Sela, Los Lobos and Astor Piazzola as well as traditional Latin pieces, offering a diverse and clever mix most suitable for orchestration. Interpreted through brilliant arrangements by Roberto Occhipinti, Hilario Duran and Andrew Downing, the results are stunning, soulful and profoundly affective.

The trio’s playing is superb and complex and O’Callaghan’s vocal nuances are delivered with a heartfelt, dynamic, yet surprisingly light and subtle touch. Most notable is her ability to keep the extreme emotional intensity going despite the incessant repetition in Elvis Costello’s I want you. Along with her gorgeous singing, O’Callaghan’s expert facility with languages is remarkable in the Spanish and French selections. Through a decade developing a chamber music series for the Lula Lounge, the Gryphon Trio has finely honed their talent for skilfully adapting classical technique to the contemporary audience and this shines through beautifully in this recording.

Concert Note: Patricia O’Callaghan and the Gryphon Trio will launch “Broken Hearts and Madmen” at the Lula Lounge on October 2.

VOCAL Note: For reviews of eight new Sony opera re-issues see Bruce Surtees’ Old Wine in New Bottles

01_kate_royalA Lesson in Love

Kate Royal; Malcolm Martineau

EMI 9 48536 2

No, Kate Royal is not a stage name of the Duchess of Cambridge. It is the real name of a young English soprano, whose ascent to fame has accelerated since one special evening in 2004, when as an understudy in The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne Festival Opera she got to sing Pamina when a diva got sick. Sounds like a typical operatic story, except there is nothing typical about Ms. Royal. The child of singers, she studied at the Guildhall School and won the Kathleen Ferrier trophy. Her happy association with Glyndebourne continues, with great results such as the recently-reviewed Don Giovanni, with Royal as Donna Elvira.

Her lyric soprano seems particularly adept at conveying emotion – her heartbroken and confused Elvira was, well, haunting. But Ms. Royal also reserves 5 months of the year for concert performances and rather than relying on existing song cycles, she has created her own – with some great collaborators. “A Lesson in Love” is an extensive cycle of songs penned by Schumann, Wolf, Schubert, Tosti, Bridge, Copland, Ravel, Fauré, Britten, Debussy and Strauss. They are artfully woven into four stages of a woman’s life, being “Waiting,” “The Meeting,” “The Wedding” and “Betrayal.” These phases are neatly spanned by two versions of William Bolcom’s Waitin (sic). Royal navigates without effort through English, German and French texts, infusing each song with her personal mark. How personal? Well, dear reader, listen to Canteloube’s “Tchut, tchut” from the Songs of the Auvergne and judge for yourself!

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