Oriana Women’s Choir; William Brown
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.
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.
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.
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.