by Seth Estrin

Six new recital discs from a variety of great operatic singers offer opportunities to hear them in a new light – in new repertoire, with different partners, or for the first time on a recital disc.

 

 Until she recently gave up the role, the German soprano Diana Damrau was known as the most thrilling Queen of the Night on stage today. She has descended from the stratosphere into other Mozart roles, as heard on Mozart - Opera and Concert Arias (Virgin Classics 2 12023 2), and we are the luckier for it. Her sparkling high notes and effervescent coloratura is still heard to excellent effect on several tracks, but what is new here is the darkness and depth of her voice. It is rare that a single singer can sound so convincing in such a variety of Mozart parts – from Donna Anna to Donna Elvira to Blonde to Kostanze – but Damrau’s remarkable versatility makes her sound at home in each role. The period orchestra Le Cercle de l’Harmonie under Jérémie Rhorer provide expert support.

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 American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has emerged as one of the most exciting Rossini singers in recent years, but on the recital disc Furore: Opera Arias (Virgin Classics 5 19038 2) she presents an all-Handel program. DiDonato is a sensitive stylist of baroque music, and uses her rich but clear voice to great effect. For an essentially light mezzo voice, she has unusual darkness in her lower register, and is not afraid to dip into her chest voice. She gives rich, impassioned readings of the music without romanticizing it, and she ornaments de capos elaborately but with taste. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques help make this one of the best Handel recitals in recent years.

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 Juan Diego Florez may be one of the most celebrated tenors of his generation, but with the great bulk his repertoire coming from the work of only three composers – Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini – it must be difficult for him to come up with new arias to record. So on the disc Bel Canto Spectacular (Decca 478 0515) sampling works from those same three composers we get to once again hear his nine high C’s in the famous aria from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment – but this time in Italian instead of French. We also get five wonderful bel canto duets, which pair him with five fantastic singers, including Placido Domingo. With a balance of usual and the unusual repertoire, this makes a charming disc that, with the variety of singers, never gets monotonous.

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 Baritone Thomas Quastoff’s operatic recital Italian Arias (Deutsche Grammophon 4777469) is unusual because it contains only arias by Joseph Haydn – a composer famous for almost everything except his operas. But several of Haydn’s many operas have been staged in recent years, and Quasthoff makes an excellent case for continuing this trend. The disc covers selections from the dramatic operas, such as Armida, perhaps the best known of Haydn’s operas, to buffo roles in comic operas such as The World on the Moon. Quasthoff, one of the finest lieder singers of his generation, is a supremely intelligent singer, but he shows himself an excellent comedian as well. With top-rate support from the Reiburger Barockorchester, this disc provides an excellent overview of Haydn’s operas – from a baritone’s perspective, at least.

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 Everything René Pape offers on Gods, Kings and Demons (Deutsche Grammophon 477 6408) will be new to listeners, since this is his debut solo recording. But Pape has for some years been considered the outstanding operatic bass of his generation, with a burnished, warm sound that is commanding without being simply a wall of dark sound. This disc showcases his versatility as an artist – the Wagner, Verdi, and Gounod tracks stand out in particular. Sometimes extended scenes can sound out of place on recital discs, but Sebastian Weigle, conducting the superb Staatskapelle Dreden, gives both the longer and shorter selections unusual shape and dimension.

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 Whether we really need another recital disc from Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is perhaps not a fair question, but her latest disc Souvenirs (Deutsche Grammophon 4777639), in what by now must be the most substantial discography of any soprano of her generation, fails to make a convincing case for itself. Netrebko presents this disc as a selection of her favourite songs and light arias from operas and operettas. It is, for the most part, a lovely if somewhat insubstantial selection. Netrebko’s dark, plangent voice is skillfully deployed to create several beautiful moments. But the voice sounds slightly looser than on earlier discs, and her diction is poorer than ever. Besides the eclectic repertoire, there is nothing here that cannot be heard to better effect on Netrebko’s earlier discs.

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 Be Thou My Vision

Oriana Women’s Choir; William Brown

Independent WRC8-8072

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.

Dianne Wells

 

 Bellini - La Sonnambula

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.

Seth Estrin

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.

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 Harrison Birtwistle - The Minotaur

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.

Pamela Margles

 

 

 

 

 

 

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