01_bartoli_sacrificiumSacrificium - La Scuola dei Castrati

Cecilia Bartoli; Il Giardino Armonico; Giovanni Antonini

Decca 478 1521

Castration is the final obstacle to truly authentic vocal performance of repertoire written for unwilling mutants. The ranks of early music zealots have, however, produced no volunteers willing to make the necessary sacrifice to reproduce the legendary qualities of the Castrato voice. Until then, the Castrato repertoire remains an unknown frontier explored only occasionally by adventurous counter tenors and female voices.

“Sacrificium” is a 2 disc collection of period arias written exclusively for Castrati. Decca has produced a miniature tome with fine historical notes and photographs documenting the age of the Castrato. The choice of Neapolitan and Venetian composers reflects the fact that the mutilation of young boys for the sake of music was principally an Italian phenomenon, albeit one that northern European courts eagerly imported.

Cecilia Bartoli’s hallmark vibrato and intense emotional style make these recordings (11 of them world premieres) truly impressive. She sustains long melismatic passages effortlessly and negotiates leaps from head to chest voice in rapid succession. And while her display of vocal technique is confident, even brazen at times, some of the finest moments in these 2 discs come in the tender passages of slow descending sequences where she draws out the beauty or anguish of the text in a way that is both simple and intense.

You’ll find familiar composers like Handel, Caldara, Porpora, Broschi and Giacomelli along with the lesser known names of Graun, Araia and Vinci. They all, however, share a gift for crafting both dynamic vocal lines and exquisite melodies that leave a listener wondering how the castrati must actually have sounded and understanding why they were worshipped.

01_porpora_ariasNicola Porpora - Arias

Karina Gauvin; Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis

ATMA ACD2 2590


Sic Transit Gloria Mundi – The glory of this world is fleeting. What an apt description of the current status of Nicola Porpora. At one time, creator (with poet Petro Metastasio) of some of the greatest triumphs of musical performance that pleased monarchs, delighted their courts and held sway over public imagination – today Porpora is little known and even less recorded. Six of 14 arias on this disc are world premiere recordings. How could the vocal teacher of castrati Caffarelli and Porporino, female superstars La Romanina, Nicola Grimaldi and Lucia Facchinelli, the man who discovered his most important protégé, Farinelli, be so thoroughly neglected? Well, there are two reasons for that: there are no more castrati and, secondly and most importantly, the music of Nicola Porpora was always meant to be a neutral background on which to showcase the castrato’s voice. His arias are not necessarily brilliant or groundbreaking – in fact, many of them seem repetitious. However, endowed with the sound of the castrato’s voice they must have been stunning. Such voice is impossible to replicate. Even for the film Farinelli, the producers digitally “mashed” the counter-tenor and soprano, to achieve a desired effect. The Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin continues to amaze with the beauty of her voice, increasingly focusing on Baroque music. Technically flawless, in this recording she is augmented by the “first leaguers” of period performance, Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis. So if no single human being can reproduce the castrato’s voice, we owe Ms. Gauvin thanks for approximating it for us.

02_puccini_ritrovatoPuccini - Ritrovato

Violeta Urmana; Placido Domingo; Wiener Staatsopernchor; Wiener Philharmonic; Alberto Veronesi

Deutsche Grammophon 477 7745


Process of artistic creation is commonly regarded as 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. This is also true in musical composition. There are very few composers like Mozart who hit upon perfection almost instantaneously, like Minerva springing out of the head of Jupiter.

Even Beethoven had agonizing struggles to arrive at perfection, as the 3 Leonora overtures show very clearly.

Puccini turned 150 last year and we still know his name, which is a considerable achievement, (I don’t think many of today’s pop celebrities will accomplish this). To celebrate, DG turned out this well researched, commendable and scholarly disc of Puccini’s discarded items, earlier versions and some unknown compositions.

I was immediately taken by the young Puccini’s compositional prowess in the beautiful Preludio a orchestra written as a teenager that contains an elegant, original melody I discovered somewhat similarly appearing in Sibelius’ 7th Symphony(!) and the Adagietto per Orchestra, an even more mature work now almost totally forgotten.

The above notwithstanding, most of the compilation is devoted to earlier, discarded versions of items in Puccini’s operas. One may be grateful that the gripping final scene of Madama Butterfly didn’t end up the way it was first written, it being too loose and unwieldy. “Too many notes” – as it were. Similarly, the earlier version of the 3rd act intermezzo of Manon Lescaut, elegant and well written as it may be, is simply no match for the poignant, heart rending final version we are accustomed to. As the greatest masterpieces, La Boheme, Tosca, Il Tabarro, Gianni Schicchi and Turandot, are notably absent I may guess they did not need revisions. What we are offered is superbly sung by great opera stars and conducted by Puccini specialist Alberto Veronesi.

03_kaufmannMozart; Schubert; Beethoven; Wagner

Jonas Kaufmann; Mahler Chamber

Orchestra; Claudio Abbado

Decca 478 1463


Jonas Kaufmann is no newcomer to the opera world nor to recordings, both audio and video. He has about 20 discs on the market, from Mozart, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and more. However none of these struck the chord as this new disc has. Admittedly he shines in Madama Butterfly and in Der Rosenkavalier and various collections with other artists, but I haven’t heard them all and there may be the artistry equal to this new disc.

I was taken completely taken by surprise by the timbre and texture of the gentle melancholy that he conveys, without a hint of bathos, in the opening lines of both In fernam land and, more particularly, Mein lieber Schwann! This entire collection is a superb showcase for Kaufmann’s artistry revealed in the arias from Lohengrin; as Tamino from The Magic Flute; arias from Schubert’s Fierrabras and Alfonso und Estrella; from Fidelio, Gott! Welch Dunkel heir!; Wintersturme; and finally two from Parsifal, Amfortas! – Die Wunde and Nur eine Waffe taugt.

The well chosen sequence of arias on this CD showcase a beautiful voice with an unusual palette of colours, textures and dynamic range whose vocal canvas is enhanced by fine musicianship and intellect. He inhabits the roles and communicates them effortlessly, supported majestically by Claudio Abbado. The recording itself is of demonstration quality, naturally balanced, very clean and well-focused.

Kaufmann’s qualities and discernable originality make it difficult to pigeonhole him as a heldentenor or a similar generalisation. He emerges as in a class of his own.

04_mahler_naganoMahler - Das Lied von der Erde

Klaus Florian Vogt; Christian Gerhaher;

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal;

Kent Nagano

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal



The Montreal Symphony Orchestra, well-known internationally in the happier decades of the recording industry for their many classic recordings of predominantly French repertoire, has joined the ranks of orchestral house labels with an excursion into what is for them relatively unfamiliar territory.    The primary allure of this performance is the finely wrought interpretation of baritone Christian Gerhaher. There is a natural, human warmth in his singing that is consistently compelling through a wide range of emotions, from the charming intimacy of Von der Schönheit to the stoical acceptance of fate in the final Abschied. Nagano is at his best in this half-hour finale, where his cool, understated approach and the white tone of the vibrato-less wind solos brings to light the Buddhist aspects of Mahler’s autumnal masterpiece. Gerhaher’s counterpart, the rising young tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, has a quite pleasant lyric tone to his voice, however Mahler’s initial vocal instructions (Mit voller Kraft; immer machtvoll) are simply beyond him. Though Vogt can be heard clearly enough over the orchestral maelstrom (thanks to a post-concert dubbing session in a Bavarian studio), his reading of his part, though elegant, is timorous and lacking in textural nuance. The audio quality is unexceptional, derived from a combination of live and studio sessions. I would gladly exchange the annoyingly speculative program notes for the full text and translations of the songs, whose absence here is unconscionable.

01_gounod_faureGounod & Fauré
Benoit Leblanc; Pierre McLean
XXI XXI-CD 2 1584

Fauré and Gounod, despite having been born almost 30 years apart, shared a great affinity during their lifetime. Fauré landed his first “music job” through Gounod’s intervention and both frequented the French salons where many of their songs received their premieres. Despite their differing styles (Fauré was called a “living metronome” for his precise phrasing, Gounod, in Fauré’s own words was “one of those rare composers who constantly introduces new elements in his music”), their songs frequently appear together in the lieder repertoire. They share equally romantic texts and the ability to showcase voice.

In this new recording, the voice being showcased is that of a young Montreal artist, Benoit Leblanc, accompanied beautifully by the acclaimed Montreal pianist and vocal coach, Pierre McLean. Leblanc’s baritone is a beautiful instrument of warm timbre and velvety texture. It occasionally and comfortably drifts toward the lower range of bass-baritone and sometimes strays, somewhat less comfortably, onto the tenor’s turf.


It never loses, however, the lyrical strength that permeates the melodies. Small wonder that - Leblanc possesses not only a Bachelor of Music Degree, but also a Masters Degree in interpretation. I for one look forward to hearing him sing some other gems of the lieder repertoire, especially Mahler and Schubert. If his command of German proves as irresistible as his knack for French songs, we can expect some major revelations in this seemingly crowded field. A must buy for lovers of the human voice.


02_faureFauré - Treize Motets; Messe Basse;
Cinq Cantiques
Ensemble de la chapelle du Quebec;
Bernard Labadie
XXI XXI-CD 2 1670

This disc is a re-release of La Chapelle de Québec’s very first recording from 1989, originally released on the ADES label. Founded in 1985 as the Ensemble vocal Bernard Labadie, it was this ensemble of young professional singers and graduating students that the famous Violons du Roy was originally created to accompany.

This collection features music written by Fauré during his 40 year career as a church musician and includes 13 motets, the Messe basse for women’s voices and five cantiques, including the beloved Cantique de Jean Racine as well as settings of traditional Noëls. Though prolific in the output of sacred vocal music, the composer wrote no music for solo organ. He obviously delighted in incorporating his own modern style into church music, continually creating variations in vocal groupings and innovation in harmonic sonorities. The ensemble handles these cleverly, providing great variety in the voices assigned to solos, duets and trios, proving Labadie to be quite generous in allowing a good number of the individual ensemble members to shine. And shine they do, as well with this relatively modern repertoire as with the Baroque and Classical fare that is their usual focus.

03_rheingoldWagner - Das Rheingold
Mario Hoff; Erin Caves;
Christine Hansmann; Tomas Möwes; Staatskapelle Weimar; Carl St. Clair
ArtHaus Musik 101353


Ever since Patrice Chereau’s revolutionary Centennial Ring of 1979, televised around the world, Wagner’s monumental cycle has become a household name with new productions cropping up regularly at opera houses of Europe and America. Being an expensive proposition and risky investment, there is great pressure (and great opportunity) for directors and designers to come up with something new and valid to say to justify the expense. Judging by Das Rheingold only (I haven’t seen the rest of their cycle) I believe the Weimar team has succeeded with this different, interesting and entertaining new version.

Wagner’s connection to Weimar and his effort to gain Liszt’s support for the project is what gave the designers the idea to use Siegfrieds Tod, the very first drama Wagner wrote and dedicated to Liszt, as a framework for their cycle. The struggle for world domination between two powers, in this case Wotan and Alberich, is the central theme with both willing to take part in the stage action. Alberich is a powerful figure, by no means a dwarf, but puts on the dwarf costume deliberately to break through the “partition” that separates him from the action.

The gods are a bunch of half-drunk, decadent and stupid wasters sitting around the kitchen table waiting for the underprivileged but very clever demi-god Loge to help them out of the trouble Wotan got them into. As this most action packed opera unfolds, with Wagner’s powerful and compassionate dramatic music there is an uneasy triumph at the end, but signalling tragedy yet to come.

A small theatre working with local, but excellent singing artists - Möwes as Alberich and Caves as Loge are absolutely superb - this performance works on all levels and is very satisfying. The young conductor from Texas, Carl St. Clair breathes musical life into it and certainly sounds dynamic and passionate, truly Wagnerian.

03_don_giovanniMozart - Don Giovanni
Simon Keenlyside; Kyle Ketelsen; Eric Halfvarson; Marina Poplavskaya; Royal Opera; Charles Mackerras
OpusArte OA 1009 D

Francesca Zambello’s brilliant production of 2002 has stood the test of time and this eagerly anticipated film was well worth the wait.

Such a pleasure to see a modern production of the complete score without the current trend of Euro-trash modernization, updating and inserting outrageous “new ideas” that pass for inventiveness. This performance is traditional in a sense, but full of imagination and inspiration. A revolving stage is simple and versatile with a curved wall that acts as a trompe l’oeil forming a false perspective of a magnificent renaissance hall for the first act finale. Generally the stage direction aims to clarify the sometimes confusing story and to show the hero in an unsympathetic light while the women are treated with compassion.

Apart from being a visual triumph it is also a wonderful musical performance. This opera requires eight soloists of the highest order, not always possible but here pretty well achieved. Simon Keenlyside is an outrageous and irreverent Don in fine voice and with his sidekick Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) accentuates the comedy with an excellent vocal and dramatic performance. Among the ladies, all of them memorable, perhaps Joyce DiDonato (Donna Elvira), a highly accomplished singer, stands out the most. Ramon Vargas here is tested as Don Ottavio with splendid results. Robert Gleadow of the COC makes an effective Masetto with his fine deep baritone voice.

But the real success is Sir Charles Mackerras. Now in his 80’s, he is a great conductor and scholar whose achievements are too many to mention, an advocate of period instruments and Mozart specialist (how can we forget his series of Mozart symphonies on Telarc). We can only admire how he springs his orchestra into life with a beautifully detailed, well paced and crisp sounding performance.

Janos Gardonyi

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