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!

02_luluBerg - Lulu

Laura Aikin; Cornelia Kallisch; Alfred Muff; Peter Straka; Zurich Opera; Franz Welser-Möst

ArtHaus Musik 101 565

Since its premiere in Zurich in 1937 Lulu cannot escape controversy. Granted, in 1937 the subject-matter of a sociopathic prostitute was as controversial as it is today, but there is so much more at stake here. Left unfinished by Berg, the opera was completed in the 1970s from Berg’s sketches and discarded drafts. Even so, this recording features the original, unfinished score, both to commemorate the 65th anniversary of its premiere and to satisfy those, who claim that Berg left the work unfinished on purpose.

It is an opera with probably the most complex female character in history. In parts Violetta, Lady Macbeth and Mélisande, Lulu is as conflicted as she is beguiling. The production takes a deep, psychological view of her character. She is a victim of childhood sexual abuse, illuminated by silent vignettes projected throughout. She also is treated by her husbands and lovers in a proprietary, misogynistic way - illustrated by female mannequin body parts encased in plastic that populate the stage. Like some macabre Damien Hirst sculptures, the body parts point to the commodification of Lulu and explain her coldness and at times hatred towards others. This approach actually works, portraying the heroine as damaged beyond repair and thus tragic, not just loathsome. As the principals sing the difficult music of Berg with ease (with Laura Aikin and Alfred Muff deserving of a special mention), Franz Welser-Möst handles the orchestra beautifully. Fair warning, though: given the graphic nature of the projections, this may be difficult for some viewers to watch. This Lulu is not for the faint of heart.


Juice vocal ensemble

Nonclassical Recordings (www.nonclassical.co.uk)

Traditional, classical and new music meet head on in the debut album by a cappella vocal trio Juice. Bringing art music forward to a hip, modern sensibility, their performances are enjoyed from Wigmore Hall to Austin's SXSW festival. Despite arrangements that are incredibly complex and vocally demanding, their delivery is crystal clear, clean and precise whether mimicking the babbling brook in Paul Robinson's Triadic Riddles of Water or a pointillistic, northern lights-like brilliance in Elisabeth Luyten's Of the Snow. With the use of breath, sighs, sonorous and dissonant harmonies, these women demonstrate how the primal resonance of the human voice has the ability to shape (or even bend) our psyches. Downright eerie are arrangements of the traditional English folksong Cruel Mother as well as group member Kerry Andrew's compositions Lullaby for the Witching Hour and luna-cy. Both a sense of wonder, and fear of the tenuous relationship between mother and child is evoked through the use of punctuated breath and long, languorous sighs in an arrangement of Gillian Welch & T-Bone Walker's Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby. Extremes in rhythmic complexities are perfectly executed in James Lindsay’s Sanbiki No Kasikoi Saru sounding almost like a game of skill in which none of the three voices trip or falter. They end off the recording with seven playful, quirky remixes; having already taken the listener to the edge, they then extend far beyond.

02_don_giovanniMozart - Don Giovanni

Gerald Finley; Glyndebourne; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Vladimir Jurowski

EMI 0 72017 9

It seems that in every baritone’s career, a Don Giovanni will happen. Given that there are some tremendous baritones out there, it would mean many a splendid production. Not necessarily so, unfortunately – just ask poor Brett Polegato, trapped in the COC’s tepid and messy effort. Surrounded by sub-par voices and dressed as a low-rent gigolo, even Polegato’s beautiful interpretation of the role could not save the production. Gerald Finley fares much better at Glyndebourne – the Kent production works for the most part and the principals are uniformly splendid, even though the OAE playing is uncharacteristically low energy. Nobody needs convincing that Finley is one of the best Giovanni’s on record – here less gigolo and more Berlusconi’s “Bunga Bunga” in the contemporized production. He is not tragic, but simply oblivious to the havoc he wreaks – a narcissistic psychopath if there ever was one. But it is Kate Royal, as confused and heartbroken Donna Elvira who steals the show. Luca Pisaroni, in a fine voice, is not cynical enough as Leporello, even in the Catalogue Aria, but sounds beautifully throughout. Isabel Leonard, beautiful to listen and look at, seems a tad too sophisticated as the naïve country bumpkin. The occasionally revolving set works well, except for the chase scenes and the finale. The most grievous harm of this production is done to the Commendatore. Traditionally, the statue and its subsequent re-animation are a source of a chill down the spine. Here, the freshly dug-out zombie evokes unwanted comedy, not horror. Ah, if only opera directors knew when to leave well enough alone…

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